There’s nothing quite like a good setting. Previously on this blog I’ve talked about characters and clichés, and that hasn’t really left a lot of time to talk about the other elements of a good story. Setting is one of them. It’s easy to forget that the right setting for a novel can transform it, elevating the events of the plot into something really special. Rebecca would be nothing without the vast, chilly halls of Manderley. Dracula would not be nearly so frightening if the Count’s castle was a three-room flat in east Croydon.
Setting is a hugely important part of writing. In fantasy and sci-fi, the term gets all fancy and becomes ‘worldbuilding’, although it’s essentially the same concept. There’s just more of it, because instead of telling the reader where your characters are, you also have to tell the reader why they’re all holding laser swords and why it was a bad idea for them to steal the unicorn’s bouquet on a full moon. Worldbuilding can be one of the most memorable things about fiction. It can take on a life of its own, allowing the setting to be examined and discussed apart from the characters who inhabit it.
The basic elements of setting and worldbuilding are pretty similar. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you still need to know where your characters are standing. Broadly speaking this can cover a lot of different elements – culture, geography, climate and the physical layout of the scene would all come under this umbrella. These elements make a story convincing regardless of its genre. They get included in most stories that aren’t about two characters having conversations in featureless white rooms. Of course, rather than just having big lumps of description sitting around uselessly these can then be used to reflect mood and create atmosphere within the story. As a general rule of thumb this is true of both setting and worldbuilding – the only real difference between the two is that in worldbuilding, the author tends to make more of it up.
So – how do you actually go about creating a rich and compelling setting? Description. While it can get quite frustrating to pause the action and set the scene, it’s impossible to have a complex and detailed setting without settling in for a paragraph of description every now and then. But when it’s done well it doesn’t feel like a pause. In some of the best fantasy settings – like Middle Earth, Discworld and Hogwarts – this scene-setting feels more like an opportunity to explore than something that has to be skimmed over.
Real talk: this is super hard.
Obviously writing is pretty tricky to begin with, but worldbuilding is a whole other level. Setting a scene can be difficult, but if it is set in some variation of the real world it’s easier for the reader to make assumptions based on the details of the scene. For example, if a writer describes a group of people all in black heading for a church, the reader is likely to assume that they’re heading to a funeral. It doesn’t always have to be the case – in fact, turning assumptions on their heads is one of the most fun things an author can do – but the assumptions have to be there for that to happen, and details from the setting is what plant such ideas in the readers’ minds. You have none of those connections to rely on if you’re building a fictional world. If writing is like learning a new language, then putting a fictional world together is like making up your own language from scratch.
There’s a couple of forms this tends to take.
The Pocket Universe
These are fictional universes that have their bases in the real world in some capacity. This is where you’d find stories that diverged from the real-world timeline – where the Titanic never sank, or where the Germans won the Second World War. This is also where you’d find stories about worlds within the normal world, such as Harry Potter – stories about unusual societies that have been kept secret and are stumbled across by some hapless protagonist.
Pocket universes have a lot of benefits. As they are rooted in the real world, it’s easy for the writer to draw on a lot of common cultural touchpoints, which requires less explaining to the reader. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time making up fictional animals for your characters to eat, or describing the odd clothes they wear, you don’t have to – you can cut straight to the plot. However, they’ve got a lot of drawbacks as well. Rooting your pocket universe in the real world will usually mean that at some point, you’ll have to deal with all the boring parts of reality. This pops up a lot in the Harry Potter universe, when everybody wonders why wizards don’t have formal education for their kids before the age of eleven. In alternate histories pocket universes present another problem – the vast amounts of research a writer has to do to make them convincing. It’s not enough for an author to say that the Germans won the war: readers will want to know how, and when, and who is alive now and who isn’t, and whether the Sixties still got to happen. Don’t write one of these unless you’re prepared to hit the books.
A Whole New World
This is the other kind of worldbuilding and it’s exactly what it sounds like. These are the fictional universes that have no link to the real world whatsoever. They can be inspired by real-world societies, and often a lot of them are, but they are emphatically not on Planet Earth in any kind of capacity. This is where you’d find a lot of fantasy stories – anything from Game of Thrones to Discworld to the entire works of Tolkien – and some sci-fi stuff as well.
Starting from scratch also has its own particular set of benefits. As an author you have complete creative freedom: anything goes. Terry Pratchett proved this when he created the Discworld – the planet is a giant flat disc, supported by four massive elephants all standing on the back of a cosmic turtle swimming through space. As I said, anything goes. It’s also easier to suspend disbelief. The lack of cultural touchpoints works in your favour here, as the reader isn’t automatically comparing it to things they’re already familiar with. However, these also have drawbacks. Making up a fictional world from scratch is so much work. You have to come up with vast amounts of detail, most of which may never make it into the finished book but you just need to know they’re there. You’ve got to establish your own cultural touchpoints and make these clear to the reader, but you’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t seem stilted or weird. And you’ve got to make all of this completely watertight, because there is nothing readers (and editors) love more than poking holes in things.
So. Which is better? That depends: on your preferences, on the story you’re trying to tell, on the kind of readers you’re writing for. These things would also affect the level of detail you go into when setting the scene. But no matter which one you choose, the most important thing to remember is this: it doesn’t stop at description.
One of my favourite kinds of worldbuilding is when an author can do it through their characters. It’s a lovely way of integrating scene-setting with character development. Characters are products of their worlds, therefore their thoughts, actions and beliefs are a part of worldbuilding. This is particularly important in historical fiction. Choice of language can make or break both the scene-setting and the character’s internal monologue – if an author picks a phrase that sounds too modern, it can completely smash the readers’ suspension of disbelief. In historical fiction this presents its own set of problems as of course, modern and historical thoughts and beliefs are wildly divergent.
One of the easiest ways to illustrate this is the way that historical fiction treats corsets. I was talking about this with my colleague the other day (thanks, Cat) as we’ve both worked on historical fiction before. Corsets in fiction have become more symbolic than anything else. They’re something for the feisty heroine to cast aside before she becomes a pirate or rides off into the sunset. But this wouldn’t work in reality. Corsets were structural underwear and all the rest of a woman’s clothes were designed on the assumption that a corset would be worn. They make you stand and move differently and if you’d worn one all your life, taking it off would feel really strange. Casting the corset aside is a nice piece of authorial shorthand – look at how emancipated our female lead is! – but without it all the seams of her clothes are in the wrong places, everything is scratchy and she’s going to get terrible back pain from having to use underdeveloped muscles all of a sudden.
My point is this: clothes are worldbuilding. The way characters think about clothes is worldbuilding. The way they care for their clothes is worldbuilding, and so is what the clothes are made of. Worldbuilding is not just about describing landscape and weather – it’s about clothes, food, slang, morality, social norms, marriage, relationships – I could go on. In short it’s about how characters fit into a setting as a context, and how that context affects them. Take, for example, Terry Pratchett’s description of the dwarves of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett’s dwarves only acknowledge one gender, and thus most of the dwarves in the Discworld series present as male. When one of them decides she wants to present as female, it causes a massive cultural uproar, going against centuries of dwarf lore and tradition which go on to affect later books in the series. This introduces the reader to a whole new section of Discworld society, the factions within it, the conflict this brings about and how this manifests to other characters. This is very detailed worldbuilding, and it’s all done without a landscape in sight.
Worldbuilding is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of work, careful thought and research, all of which can really get in the way when you just want to jump to the plot. But it also helps make better stories. When the characters and the setting work in tandem, that’s when the setting feels the most vivid and a book really comes alive. It makes for rich and rewarding stories that a reader will remember. Despite all the hard work, I think it’s always worth it.